Sleepy Labeef

Sleepy LaBeef, it has been reported, drinks up to twenty cups of coffee a day. But after more than fifty years of slinging it out on the road and clearly havin' a ball the entire time, it's obvious that LaBeef's energy comes from somewhere other than a coffee cup. And when he starts reaching into his musical bag of tricks and mixing the Brother Claude Ely with the Muddy Waters and Johnny Horton there can be little doubt that it comes from somewhere spiritual. The stage is LaBeef's pulpit and he treats it as such; his influences ranging from the well known to the obscure, be it gospel, blues, hillbilly, bluegrass, western swing, R&B or rock 'n' roll. Without all of it, he says, his music would be incomplete. "I started out doing southern, foot stomping, hand clapping gospel music. Then I would hear the blues on blues stations, the hillbilly music, the bluegrass out of Nashville, Bob Wills out of Texas. I had an appreciation for all the music—if it's good, I've always loved it."

Hailing from Smackover, Arkansas, LaBeef wisely traded his shotgun for a guitar before heading to Houston as a teenager. There, he cut a pair of blistering rockabilly classics for Starday in 1957 that were so explosive as to threaten destruction at any moment. "Relentless" would be the only word to describe "I'm Through" and "All The Time," with their pounding slap bass, breakneck acoustic rhythm and wild guitar leads courtesy of Hal Harris. These records alone would have been enough to garner Sleepy legendary status. But there were many, many more. Throughout the early sixties LaBeef waxed sides for Dixie, Gulf, Picture, Crescent and Finn as well as two for Wayside that—aside from Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things Happening Everyday"—have virtually become his theme songs: thundering renditions of Bo Diddley's "Ride On Josephine" and Hank Ballard's "Tore Up" that he easily made his own. Beginning in 1964 he cut six singles for Columbia in as many years—among them were unforgettable versions of Jimmy Reed's "Shame, Shame, Shame" and Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me." A pattern was developing; although he'd come on as a stellar songwriter in the beginning of his career, he could take just about any song in any genre and inhabit it so intimately that it might as well have come from his own pen. He cut eighty tunes for Sun Records starting in 1970. Only one of them, "Blackland Farmer," was a hit, but LaBeef never left the road and the new fans that he kept gaining along the way.

He developed a nickname, the Human Jukebox, which arose from speculation about just how many songs resided in his repertoire. It was generally agreed that he knew around six thousand. Strangely, LaBeef remains one of the most under appreciated of the original rockabilly cats; in a world where elusiveness and obscurity occasionally cloud musical quality, the fact that he's never disappeared has almost worked against him. LaBeef fans should not hesitate to check out his appearance in the 1968 film The Exotic Ones—also known as The Monster and the Stripper—where he stars as a swamp monster invading Bourbon Street strip clubs!

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